New English Translation
Miriam and Aaron Oppose Moses
12 [a] Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against[b] Moses because of the Cushite[c] woman he had married[d] (for he had married an Ethiopian woman). 2 They[e] said, “Has the Lord spoken only[f] through Moses? Has he not also spoken through us?”[g] And the Lord heard it.[h]
3 (Now the man Moses was very humble,[i] more so than any man on the face of the earth.)
The Response of the Lord
4 The Lord spoke immediately to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam: “The three of you come to the tent of meeting.” So the three of them went. 5 And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent; he then called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward.
6 The Lord[j] said, “Hear now my words: If there is a prophet among you,[k] I the Lord[l] will make myself known to him in a vision; I will speak with him in a dream. 7 My servant[m] Moses is not like this; he is faithful[n] in all my house. 8 With him I will speak face to face,[o] openly[p] and not in riddles, and he will see the form[q] of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” 9 The anger of the Lord burned against them, and he departed. 10 After the cloud had departed[r] from above the tent, there was[s] Miriam, leprous[t] like snow. Then Aaron turned toward Miriam, and realized[u] that she was leprous.
The Intercession of Moses
11 So Aaron said to Moses, “O my lord,[v] please do not hold this sin against us, in which we have acted foolishly and have sinned! 12 Do not let her be like a baby born dead, whose flesh is half consumed when it comes out of its[w] mother’s womb!”
13 Then Moses cried to the Lord, “Heal her now, O God.”[x] 14 The Lord said to Moses, “If her father had only spit[y] in her face, would she not have been disgraced for seven days? Shut her out from the camp seven days, and afterward she can be brought back in again.”
15 So Miriam was shut outside of the camp for seven days, and the people did not journey on until Miriam was brought back in.[z] 16 After that the people moved from Hazeroth and camped in the wilderness of Paran.
- Numbers 12:1 sn In this short chapter we find a prime example of jealousy among leaders and how God dealt with it. Miriam and Aaron are envious of Moses’ leadership, but they use an occasion—his marriage—to criticize him. Often the immediate criticism is simply a surface issue for a deeper matter. God indicates very clearly he will speak through many people, including them, but Moses is different. Moses is the mediator of the covenant. The chapter is a lesson of what not to do. They should have fulfilled their duties before God and not tried to compete or challenge the leader in this way. There is a touch of divine irony here, for Miriam is turned white with leprosy. The chapter falls easily into the sections of the story: the accusation (vv. 1-3), the Lord’s response (vv. 4-10), the intercession of Moses (vv. 11-16). For further information, see J. S. Kselman, “A Note on Numbers 12:6-8, ” VT 26 (1976): 500-504.
- Numbers 12:1 tn The preposition ב (bet) has the adversative sense here, “[speak] against” (see also its use for hostile speech in 21:5, 7). Speaking against is equal to the murmuring throughout the wilderness period. The verb of the sentence is וַתְּדַבֵּר (vattedabber), the feminine form of the verb. This indicates that Miriam was the main speaker for the two, the verb agreeing with the first of the compound subject.sn It may be that Miriam was envious of the Cushite woman Moses married. And, in view of the previous chapter’s content about others being given a portion of the Spirit to share in the leadership role, she may have seen this as her chance finally to become just as important in the nation as her younger brother. After all, she safeguarded his birth and early years (Exod 2). But there are two issues here—the reason she gives (“does the Lord only speak through Moses?”), and the reason the text gives (the Cushite woman).
- Numbers 12:1 tn The Hebrew text has הַכֻּשִׁית (hakkushit, “the Cushite”) as the modifier of “woman.” The Greek text interpreted this correctly as “Ethiopian.” The word Cush in the Bible can describe the Cassites, east of Babylon of the later period (Gen 10:18), or Ethiopia (Isa 20:3; Nah 3:5; et al). Another suggestion is that it would refer to Cushan of Hab 3:7, perhaps close to Midian, and so the area Moses had been. This would suggest it could be Zipporah—but the Bible does not identify the Cushite as Zipporah. The most natural understanding would be that it refers to an Egyptian/Ethiopian woman. The text does not say when Moses married this woman, or what Miriam’s problem with her was. It is clear that it was a racial issue, by virtue of the use of “Cushite.” Whether she was of darker skin than the Hebrews would be hard to say, since the Bible gives no further detail. Neither does it say if this is a second wife, or a woman Moses married since Zipporah went home (Exod 18:2). These do not seem to be the issues the text wishes to elaborate on; it is simply stating that this woman was the occasion for a deeper challenge.
- Numbers 12:1 tn Heb “taken.”
- Numbers 12:2 tn Now the text changes to use a plural form of the verb. The indication is that Miriam criticized the marriage, and then the two of them raised questions about his sole leadership of the nation.
- Numbers 12:2 tn The use of both רַק and אַךְ (raq and ʾakh) underscore the point that the issue is Moses’ uniqueness.
- Numbers 12:2 sn The questions are rhetorical. They are affirming that God does not only speak through Moses, but also speaks through them. They see themselves as equal with Moses. The question that was asked of the earlier presumptuous Moses—“Who made you a ruler over us?”—could also be asked of them. God had not placed them as equals with Moses. The passage is relevant for today when so many clamor for equal authority and leadership with those whom God has legitimately called.
- Numbers 12:2 sn The statement is striking. Obviously the Lord knows all things. But the statement of the obvious here is meant to indicate that the Lord was about to do something about this.
- Numbers 12:3 tc The spelling of the word is a Kethib-Qere reading. The Qere, עָנָיו (ʿanayv), adds a yod compared to the Kethib, with the expected form, עָנָו (ʿanav). The Qere could be viewed as having a suffix, “As for the man Moses, his humility (or affliction) was very great.” tn The word עָנָו (ʿanav) means “humble.” The word may reflect a trustful attitude (as in Pss 25:9; 37:11), but perhaps here the idea of “more tolerant” or “long suffering.” The point is that Moses is not self-assertive. God singled out Moses and used him in such a way as to show that he was a unique leader. For a suggestion that the word means “miserable,” see C. Rogers, “Moses: Meek or Miserable?” JETS 29 (1986): 257-63. Hebrew has several homonyms of עָנָה (ʿanah) one of which means “humble” and another “afflicted.” sn Humility is a quality missing today in many leaders. Far too many are self-promoting, or competitive, or even pompous. The statement in this passage would have been difficult for Moses to write—and indeed, it is not impossible that an editor might have added it. One might think that for someone to claim to be humble is an arrogant act. But the statement is one of fact—he was not self-assertive (until Num 20 when he strikes the rock).
- Numbers 12:6 tn Heb “he.”
- Numbers 12:6 tn The form of this construction is rare: נְבִיאֲכֶם (neviʾakhem) would normally be rendered “your prophet.” The singular noun is suffixed with a plural pronominal suffix. Some commentators think the MT has condensed “a prophet” with “to you.”
- Numbers 12:6 tn The Hebrew syntax is difficult here. “The Lord” is separated from the verb by two intervening prepositional phrases. Some scholars conclude that this word belongs with the verb at the beginning of v. 6 (“And the Lord spoke”).
- Numbers 12:7 sn The title “my servant” or “servant of the Lord” is reserved in the Bible for distinguished personages, people who are truly spiritual leaders, like Moses, David, Hezekiah, and also the Messiah. Here it underscores Moses’ obedience.
- Numbers 12:7 tn The word “faithful” is נֶאֱמָן (neʾeman), the Niphal participle of the verb אָמַן (ʾaman). This basic word has the sense of “support, be firm.” In the Niphal it describes something that is firm, reliable, dependable—what can be counted on. It could actually be translated “trustworthy.”
- Numbers 12:8 tn The emphasis of the line is clear enough—it begins literally “mouth to mouth” I will speak with him. In human communication this would mean equality of rank, but Moses is certainly not equal in rank with the Lord. And yet God is here stating that Moses has an immediacy and directness with communication with God. It goes beyond the idea of friendship, almost to that of a king’s confidant.
- Numbers 12:8 tn The word מַרְאֶה (marʾeh) refers to what is seen, a vision, an appearance. Here it would have the idea of that which is clearly visible, open, obvious.
- Numbers 12:8 tn The word “form” (תְּמוּנָה, temunah) means “shape, image, form.” The Greek text took it metaphorically and rendered it “the glory of the Lord.” This line expresses even more the uniqueness of Moses. The elders saw God on one special occasion (Exod 24:10), and the people never (Deut 4:12, 15), but Moses has direct and familiar contact with God.
- Numbers 12:10 tn The syntax, vav (ו) plus noun first, indicates a circumstantial clause. The translation treats the verb as a perfect. The form could also be a participle, “while it was departing.”
- Numbers 12:10 tn The particle הִנֵּה (hinneh, “look, behold”) calls for or directs attention. Here it shifts the audience’s focus from the Lord leaving to Miriam’s condition.
- Numbers 12:10 sn The word “leprosy” and “leprous” covers a wide variety of skin diseases, and need not be limited to the actual disease of leprosy known today as Hansen’s disease. The description of it here has to do with snow, either the whiteness or the wetness. If that is the case then there would be open wounds and sores—like Job’s illness (see M. Noth, Numbers [OTL], 95-96).
- Numbers 12:10 tn This second use of הִנֵּה (hinneh, “look, behold”) portrays the perspective of Aaron. The first הִנֵּה directed the audience’s attention to Miriam. Now we watch Aaron come to realize the same thing, leading into his plea in the next verse.
- Numbers 12:11 tn The expression בִּי אֲדֹנִי (bi ʾadoni, “O my lord”) shows a good deal of respect for Moses by Aaron. The expression is often used in addressing God.
- Numbers 12:12 tc The words “its mother” and “its flesh” are among the so-called tiqqune sopherim, or “emendations of the scribes.” According to this tradition the text originally had here “our mother” and “our flesh,” but the ancient scribes changed these pronouns from the first person to the third person. Apparently they were concerned that the image of Moses’ mother giving birth to a baby with physical defects of the sort described here was somehow inappropriate, given the stature and importance of Moses.
- Numbers 12:13 tc Some scholars emend אֵל (ʾel, “God”) to עַל (ʿal, “no”). The effect of this change may be seen in the NAB: “Please, not this! Pray, heal her!”
- Numbers 12:14 tn The infinitive absolute strengthens the modality of the clause, here emphasizing the alternative condition.
- Numbers 12:15 tn The clause has the Niphal infinitive construct after a temporal preposition.